10 Professional Hacks for Physical Therapists

Pro Tips for Physical Therapists

Photo of a woman working with a patient in physical therapy.
Be a better physical therapist with PT pro tips. Caiaimages/Trevor Adeline/ Getty Images

Physical therapy can be a pretty demanding profession. Sure, you aren't digging ditches in the mud, but you may be lifting patients, managing an outpatient caseload, documenting functional progress, and satisfying insurance regulations to ensure payment.

So, are there things that you can do consistently to make your day in the clinic and your patient interactions go more smoothly? Are there special hacks that the pros use to help them get through a day?

You bet there are.

Here is a list of 10 physical therapy pro tips that can help you be a successful physical therapist while working with your patients.

1. Take a 30-second break during your evaluations.

When first meeting a patient and taking a history, your mind may be scrambling to get the story straight and to decide on the best way to assess your patient. A 30-second break after taking the history may be all that you need to clear your head to perform a thorough evaluation. Keep things like a dynamometer or a goniometer in a cabinet or drawer away from the patient. After you get the history for your patient and are ready to start performing tests and measures, excuse yourself to retrieve the measuring equipment. That can give you a quick break to catch your breath, clear your head, and perform the best evaluation and assessment.

2. Start all evaluations by asking your patient what he or she does for a living.

When you first meet a patient to perform an evaluation, start your questioning by asking what he or she does for a living.

Why? When you ask someone what job they do, you are really asking what position they put their body in all day long. Someone with back pain who sits all day at a desk may need posture correction exercises. A mechanic who reaches overhead at work may be causing their own shoulder pain. This question can also give you insight into how their condition affects their ability to do their job.

(Super pro tip: even if your patient is older or elderly, ask what their job is. Never assume someone is retired based upon their age!)

3. Grab the non-injured limb during treatment? No worries!

Uh oh. Your patient has a frozen shoulder on their right side, and you start performing range of motion on the left shoulder. The patient calmly informs you that you are treating the wrong shoulder! What do you do? Simply smile and say, "Oops." and move to the correct side. It's not the end of the world; we all make mistakes. Plus you can use that faux pas to see how the patient's non-injured side moves compared to their injured side and assess the severity of their condition.

4. Mix it up.

Be careful not to fall into the predictable pattern of prescribing exercises to your patients that are all the same sets and repetitions. Mix it up a bit, and prescribe the correct number of reps based on the patients needs. Are you working with an endurance athlete? Perhaps prescribe higher repetitions of an exercise.

Trying to build strength? Keep it at eight to ten reps. Take a day and visit another PT clinic to learn some different exercises. Just try not to get in a rut of using the same exercises at the same intensity for all your patients. Physical therapy is a specialized service, and your patients should get specialized care from you.

5. Rely on your clinical skills and judgment.

These days, it seems that every patient shows up to the physical therapy clinic with X-ray and MRI reports. Is an MRI really necessary before starting PT? Most of the time, the answer is no. Glance at the MRI pictures and reports after your evaluation. This can help keep your clinical skills sharp and can prevent you from performing an examination that is biased by the MRI pictures. Not every patient with a herniated disc requires McKenzie extension exercises. Patients with rotator cuff tears all move differently, and your assessment should reflect that fact. Rely on your clinical skills first and make a professional assessment based on your evaluation findings.

6. Theraband isn't just for strengthening.​

Theraband, or other resistance bands, can be used for activities other than strengthening exercises. If your patient has foot drop, you can tie one end of the band around their upper calf and the opposite end around the patient's toe. The tension on the band can help pull their ankle up when walking to prevent catching their toe on the floor. If your patient is standing on a dusty or slippery floor, use a small bit of resistance band to help improve contact between your patient's foot and the floor (much like Dycem).

7. Use a towel as a handle for Theraband.

Do you have a patient who has rheumatoid or osteoarthritis and is having trouble gripping a resistance band? Or are patients complaining about how the resistance band is cutting into their hand while gripping it? If so, there is an easy fix: use a small towel as a handle. Simply tie a loop at the end of the resistance band, and feed a rolled up hand towel through the loop. Now your patient can hold the towel as a handle while performing upper extremity exercises.

8. Don't use fancy anatomical terms and medical jargon.

So, your patient has a posterior lumbar derangement and requires a grade III flexion and rotation mobilization to reduce the derangement and regain normal intervertebral mobility. That sounds impressive, but your patient doesn't need to know all those fancy words. When you are speaking with doctors, nurses or other physical therapists, it is fine to use medical terminology. But when speaking with patients and their families, use terms that are easily understandable.

9. Always ask your patients if they have any questions.

It's so easy to get caught up in trying to stay on schedule and to try to move quickly from one patient to the next. Before leaving any patient, get in the habit of asking if he or she has any questions about their physical therapy care. Taking thirty seconds to ask your patients if everything is clear and understood can help you develop a positive working relationship with your patients.

10. Communicate effectively with doctors and referral sources.

One of the most important things you can do is communicate with professionals who refer patients to you. Be sure to write clear and concise notes, and make sure the doctor (or whoever is reading your notes) understands exactly what your physical therapy plan of care is.

Being a physical therapist can be tough, but it can also be very rewarding. By learning some professional tricks of the trade, you can be sure to maximize your time with your patients to get the best rehabilitation outcomes.

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